The Merrick and Three Lochs
For hillwalkers more used to the Lake District and Snowdonia, the idea of walking in Scotland can be intimidating. Is the air thick with midges? Will my evenings be spent coaxing ticks from unspeakable crevices? What about that inevitable face off with a testosterone-fuelled stag? Aren’t there raging burns to cross and vast landscapes to negotiate? Angry gamekeepers chasing me off wealthy landowners’ estates? And if they don’t get me, surely the eagles circling overhead will? I’ve heard it snows all year round and my compass won’t work. And don’t get me started on that monster in the loch.
Look past these exaggerated truths and you’ll find Scotland is simply big and brilliant and breathtaking. Perfect for us softies south of the border looking to take things up a notch.
And you don’t need to travel far across the border to grab a taste of this wilderness. Tucked away in the southwestern corner of Scotland lie the magnificent Galloway Hills. The region covers a vast area but it’s the compact area of high ground that we are most interested in. Made for those who prefer their hillwalking rugged, there are bogs, burns, bracken and boulders and little in the way of paths and people. Here the nights are black and the stars shine bright, the area being designated a Dark Sky Park.
For my first trip to Galloway, it made sense to start with the big one. The Merrick stands at 843m, making it one of Galloway’s four Corbetts (a Scottish mountain between 2,500ft and 3,000ft with a drop of at least 500ft between adjacent higher ones). It’s the highest point in southern Scotland and the perfect introduction to walking in terrain that’s feels a step up from my usual stomping ground.
Today is very much a walk of two halves. Getting to the summit of The Merrick is the easy bit. There’s a reassuring path that’s adventurous enough while feeling reassuringly familiar to experienced hillwalkers. But once you leave the summit – that’s where the real Galloway experience begins.
The initial ascent alongside Buchan Burn is perfect for warming up stiff legs. After the long drive and idyllic starting point above Loch Trool, the clear, crashing waters wash away the fatigue and recalibrate the senses. The path threads its way assertively through the thick bracken until you reach a clearing that’s home to Culsharg bothy. The spot’s a little too idyllic, proving a magnet for the type of bothy user who doesn’t know or care about the bothy code. Don’t let the state of the interior detract from the sense of wilderness you’ll already be starting to appreciate. The landscape is vast and unlike anywhere I’ve walked.
And this is just the supporting act. Encouraged by clear signs guiding the way, I enter a fenced-off wooded area, with a board proudly advertising the efforts made to restore the habitat. A longing glance back through the trees spurs me up the climb, with fungi galore to keep things interesting.
The montane zone
A marker on the ground heralds the point where the forest area ends and the montane zone begins. It’s pretty obvious from the surroundings but I appreciate the prompt to gear up for more serious terrain.
It’s a bit of an uphill slog now to reach our first summit of the day – Benyellary. The views are already mega, with glimpses of the three lochs beneath the swirling cloud to the east and vast swathes of Scottish countryside stretching all the way to the coast to the west.
I walk north along the delightfully named Nieve of the Spit. The ground plunges away into the Gloon corrie before the final climb to the Merrick. From this lofty vantage point, I begin to appreciate the scale of this largely uninhabited landscape. The paths and people encountered on the first half of the walk have lulled me into a sense of thinking this is a rather jolly day out. But peer into the heart of the Galloway Hills and I’m reminded of how serious this terrain is.
A change of pace
Right on cue, the weather gods unleash their fury. Strong winds whip across the broad eastern spur of the Merrick, known as Redstone Rig. I catch a brief glimpse of Loch Enoch far below before the cloud engulfs me.
There are no longer paths to guide me, so I pick a line and make for where I trust the loch will be waiting.
After an adventurous descent, the sanctuary of Loch Enoch offers the perfect tonic for the punishing winds. Crystal clear waters, white sandy beaches and a congregation of noble hills make for an idyllic lunch spot. Mullwharchar, Dungeon Hill and Craignaw feel within touching distance. But don’t be fooled. Between these summits and me lies more of that wild landscape we’ve been talking about. If you plan to visit these summits, know that you’ll be turning a big hill day into an even bigger one.
I turn my attention to the not insignificant return via Lochs Arron, Neldricken and Valley. Some nifty map and compass work takes me to the diminutive Loch Arron. My favourite story of the region concerns the legend of the peat bog hags, where naked maidens smeared with black mud are thought to appear from this unassuming pool of water. I’m muddy enough already so follow the small trod as it weaves alongside Lochs Neldricken and Valley. Keep an eye out for intrepid anglers in these parts casting their lines into the blue waters in an attempt to outwit a trout, or perhaps a naked maiden.
The final miles are where Galloway serves up some of its most challenging terrain to date. Legs leap across grippy rocks one minute and plunge into peat the next. I hack through vegetation like a jungle explorer and stop regularly to appreciate the ruggedness of the landscape.
The welcome sight of Loch Trool heralds the final approach. And after one final rough section, I emerge unceremoniously on the clear forest track leading back to the car, with a short diversion to Bruce’s Stone, commemorating Robert the Bruce and the Battle of Trool 700 years ago.
There are no tourists in the valley as I reluctantly turn my back on Galloway and settle in for the long drive home. I thought I’d have lots to process, having conquered this intimidating place. I survived the blood-sucking beasties, the rutting stags and mud-smeared maidens. And despite these obstacles, all I can think of is when I’ll be able to return to this enchanting place.
Highs and Lowdown
Start / Finish: Near Bruce’s Stone at the eastern end of Loch Trool
Navigation: Strong navigation skills required in this vast and unforgiving landscape.
Terrain: The first half is on paths which will feel familiar to experienced hillwalkers. After the Merrick, the going is tough with rugged pathless terrain crossing bogs, rocks and vegetation. Previous experience of this type of terrain recommended.
Facilities: Glentrool Visitor Centre (check for seasonal opening hours)
*These routes and descriptions are only ever intended to be a personal record of my adventures, which may inspire your own. Hillwalking involves a degree of risk, so please make sure you are properly equipped and prepared if you choose to follow them.